Factory Ships

Stories about enslaved fishermen on factory ships occasionally appear on BBC and other news sources.   A recent one tells us about the interdiction of one such ship by Thai police, which then lets the ship go.  Apparently Thai fishing industry is desperate for workers, with the BBC reporting that “by the [Thai] Ministry of Labour’s count, fishing boats in Thailand are short of 50,000 men.”  The workers on the ship the Thai police and the accompanying BBC reporter, Becky Palmstrom, boarded

say they didn’t know they were coming on to a boat when they left Rakhine State in the west of Burma, or Myanmar as it is also known. They owe a broker $750 (£450) for bringing them here. One man glances out from under a mop of salt-soaked hair. “It’s been seven months,” he says. He still hasn’t been paid.

Palmstrom also reports that

One Cambodian man I spoke to was trapped for three years on a boat without any wages, while he “paid off his debt”. He was never told how much he owed.

This apparatus of debt bondage is one that works beyond the fishing industry and certainly beyond Southeast Asia.  But here I want to talk about a couple of novels I have read about factory fishing, and they are as different as you can possibly imagine.

The first of the two is Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star. Yes, that Martin Cruz Smith;   and Polar Star is the followup to the famous and filmed Gorky Park.  In the second novel, Detective Arkady Renko has been exiled to Siberia and after “failing” at a number of  forced labour “assignment” has been sent to work on a factory ship in the Bering Sea, which is a joint venture between the US and Soviet Union during the Perestroika, and which catches fish, guts and cleans them, and freezes them for sale in the US.   Until of course a murder happens.

What is amazing about the Polar Star is its extraordinary depiction of the freezing seas, of the longing for land, and of the factory work on the ship (and of course of the system of surveillance KGB firmly has in place onboard the ship, even as the power and control of the Soviet Union over its citizens wanes).  Some of the people who work on the ship have committed crimes of various sorts and this work assignment is a kind of punishment.  Others are on the ship because it pays better than many land-jobs and facilitates smuggling (which can bring in extra income).  The descriptions of ice in particular are amazing,with this bit coming from a passage where Renko is running on a frozen sea:

A grey streak of ice started to sag under his feet. He moved laterally to whiter ice and picked up the bearings again. Ice tended to break on a southwest-northeast axis, the wrong way for his path.  It kept him alert….

The descriptions of the work -of fingers sawed off while the fish are cut up, of the numbing of limbs in the freezers, or the trade in cigarettes and sex and favours- all are wonderful.

A very different sort of book about factory ships is Kobayashi Takiji’The Crab Cannery Ship (Kanikōsen).  The book, a proletarian manifesto written by a Marxist militant tortured to death by the Japanese regime in 1933, has apparently become a HUGE hit in Japan since 2008, even generating several different manga version.


The version I have read is the most recent translation by Zeljko Cipris, though apparently the short little novel has been translated into English twice before (in 1933 and 1973).  As I don’t know Japanese, I can’t say how faithful a translation it is, but it is beautiful and gripping, even if at times, it reads more like a manual for labour organising.

Takiji has chosen to only name two people, the villainous “manager” and a dead worker, with the rest of the characters only appearing as types: the captain, the cabinboy, the stuttering worker, etc.  It is a surprisingly effective conceit and provides a sense of the workers’ collective affect and practice.

Like Smith, Takiji also conveys the awe and terror of storms in the frozen Kamchatka Sea extraordinarily, but he is even better at describing the horrendous conditions of the workers:

The shit-hole stove merely sputtered and smoked.  Barely alive human being shivered with cold as though they’d been mistaken for salmon and trout and thrown into a refrigerator. Great waves splashed thunderously, sweeping across the canvas-covered hatchway.  The reverberation of each blow within the shit-hole’s iron walls was as deafening as the inside of a drum.  At times heavy thuds rang out directly beside the sprawling fisherman, like might shoves from a powerful shoulder.  Now the ship was writhing within the sea-storm’s ranging waves like a whale in its death agonies.

The workers all suffer from beriberi, and one, Yamada, dies from it.  The description of his death and of the indignities to which his corpse is subjected is detailed, harrowing, and grimly gripping.  The “manager” rules the roost not just with a metaphorical iron fist.  He hangs and flogs intransigent workers, brands them with hot irons if they are too slow, forces them to work -sometimes for more than 14 or 15 hours a day, beats them, shoots his gun over their heads, and worries very little if they are lost at sea.  Takiji writes

Crab cannery ships were considered factories, not ships.  Therefore maritime law did not apply to them.  Ships that had been tied up for twenty years and were good for nothing but scrap iron, vessels as battered as tottering syphilitics,were given a shameless cosmetic makeover and brought to Hakodate.  Hospital ships and military transports that had been “honorably” crippled in the Russo-Japanese War and abandoned like fish guts turned ip in port looking more faded than ghosts.  If steam was turned up a little, pipes whistled and burst.  When they put on speed while chased by Russian patrol boats,the ships began to creak all over as though about to come apart at any moment,and shook like palsied men.

But none of that mattered in the least, for this was a time when it was everyone’s duty to stand tall for the Japanese Empire.  Moreover the crab cannery ships were factories pure and simple.  And yet factory laws did not apply to them either.  Consequently, no other site offered such an accommodating setting for management’s freedom to act
with total impunity.

The book is amazing in other ways: its discussion of the work of cleaning and canning crabs reminded me again and again of Upton Sinclaire’s The Jungle (especially Chapter 3) with its detailed and unflinching description of labour in slaughterhouses. Takiji’s incisive critique of Japanese militarism, imperialism, and chauvinism is jolting in its prescience (remember that the book was written in 1929, two years before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria).  Its description of a failed strike is unsentimental; clinical in its diagnosis.

Neither the book’s self-avowed didactism nor its rather abrupt ending detract from its wondrous and horrifying portrayal of a decrepit and putrid hell-ship; its awesome description of a sea of ice; and most importantly, its acute narration of the precarity that characterises the lives and work of the Burmese workers with whose story I began this post.


For more on forced labour on factory ships, see the ILO’s report (PDF), a report by HRW (PDF), and the website of Maritime Union of New Zealand which has taken the lead on activism on this.

You can also read online (PDF) the very good introduction to The Crab Cannery Ship.